Excellence in Action

Anthony Yom, MEd ’09

Anthony Yom has been a social justice educator for thirteen years, all of which have been at Abraham Lincoln High School, where he teaches various mathematics classes. Yom has developed a firm belief that any student, regardless of their academic, cultural, and social struggles, can learn and succeed when passion and collaboration is met with the right support system. To Yom, teaching is like planting a seed. In order for a seed to blossom into a beautiful flower, it needs constant care and attention.  Similarly, students need sincere care, attention, and love in order for them to be successful. Yom graduated from the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies in 2009 with a Master of Education.

Describe your career path from UCLA to your current role.

I earned two master’s degrees from UCLA, one of the Programs is called Teacher Education Program (TEP), and the other one is called Principal Leadership Institute (PLI). When I was getting my first Master’s degree, I was hired as a math teacher at Lincoln High School located in East LA. Ever since then, I’ve been teaching math to kids at the same location. It’s been 13 years at Lincoln and during that time, I’ve been in charge of the math department and also have been teaching AP Calculus for 7 years. Currently, I am a half time teacher and halftime Magnet coordinator. For the past five years, all my students have passed the AP calculus exam, which itself is a good achievement, but just this last year, every single one of my students got a 5. So it was not just a 100% passing rate, but they all got the highest score possible. It was something that I never thought would be possible but these kids showed me anything is possible when you put in the work.

At your school do you make the goal vocal about making sure all your students get a 5 or is that just the bi-product of the way that you teach?

I’ve been teaching AP Calculus for six years and I’ve now entered my seventh year. At first, I had to instill a goal for them. I had to make sure that kids understood the subject matter and benefits they would be getting. As a first year Calculus teacher, I didn’t know what it would take to get the students to master the subject, so we had to set the goal together. Calculus is a complex subject and I have to constantly learn and polish my skills in order to teach it. Thus, the students and I both had to put in the work. By putting in the effort from both sides, we were able to build trust and develop team work. With trust as a foundation, the kids would go an extra mile to keep up the team work and getting high scores came out to be the result that they deserve. After a few years, students talk about the high scores the previous year’s class achieved and set the goal on their own so it became a tradition amongst them. When students first come to my AP Calculus class, they walk in not only to prepare themselves to pass the AP exam, but to keep the tradition going.

What inspired you to choose this career path?

There were two distinct people in my life who inspired me to get into teaching. When I was in high school, I met a history teacher named Mr. Burr, who actually went to UCLA. When I was in high school, my English was not fluent because at that time, I had only been in the states for a few years. Mr. Burr came fresh out of college and said, “Guess what guys, I’m back. I used to attend this high school myself. I just graduated from UCLA and I’m so excited to teach at the school I attended.” While other teachers never really approached me or talked to me, he was the one teacher who took the time to initiate conversations and encouraged me through positive comments. He was the first teacher who I had a real interaction with and at that moment, I thought to myself, “Man, this guy is cool and I want to be like him.” Mr. Burr left such a positive impact on me that I actually thought of becoming a teacher in order to encourage others the same way he did.

Just like college students, I had a confusing time trying to determine my true interest and jumped between different majors including Computer Science and Economics. However, I still could not decide what I wanted to do after college. Towards my senior year, I had a chance to sit down with my mom and talk to her about my dilemma. I told her I cannot figure out what profession I should go into and she said, “You’ve always enjoyed teaching others. I remember in high school, you helped your friends in study groups when they struggled in math class. Also, you found it fulfilling to teach younger kids at Sunday school. Why don’t you consider teaching? That is something you enjoy and are good at.”

With my mom’s suggestion, I thought about when I was in high school with Mr. Burr and I figured I would give it a try. After college, I visited Mr. Burr and he encouraged me to give teaching a shot. The rest is history.

Is there anything about the students that inspire you to continue teaching or to stay in your current career?

Being able to interact with my students inspires me every day. Every one of my students are so unique, creative, and talented in their own way and I learn from them as much as they learn from me. Recently, I had a senior class which I taught for four years graduate and I was so proud of us, the students and myself. They have inspired me to stay focused in teaching and made me remind myself everyday why I teach. I’m so excited to see what remarkable young adults they will become. This year, I got a big group of new students who are freshmen. They may seem like young, inexperienced kids but they have so much potential and have such big dreams they will achieve. I spent most of this week getting to know the new class, the new generation. A lot of people make comments about “kids these days” but they are the future and they will be the leaders of the world sooner or later. It was the same situation back when we were in high school. Now, “those kids” are CEOS of Fortune 100 companies, presidents of countries, and leaders of the world excelling in various industries.

How did your UCLA experience help shape your success?

UCLA, especially in education, is ranked on top and I think the ranking itself speaks about how great of a program it is. What’s great about UCLA is that not only do they teach you theory, but they also give you an opportunity to implement the theory through field work before going into the actual job. The staff in the UCLA Programs won’t let you struggle or wonder on your own. Professors at UCLA are not only knowledgeable in their field but they have real experiences in teaching. They give you real, valuable advice that they learned from their own experiences. At UCLA, its more than earning a degree; you get to build relationships. It has been 12 years since I left my first master’s program and I still keep in touch with my professors and friends from UCLA. They pretty much are the backbone of my educational career. In everything I do, I have their support and advice anytime I need it. It is a program that helped me build my success.

In what ways have you utilized the UCLA alumni network?

Teaching can be a very lonely profession. Don’t get me wrong, I love working with kids so I don’t feel alone in that sense but as an adult, sometimes you want to communicate with other colleagues who are adults and share ideas. Of course, I have other teachers at my school but it is a small group of us and I wonder how other teachers are managing their classes and what new ideas they are practicing. So I utilize my UCLA alumni network to stay connected with educators from other schools to exchange ideas and support each other. Without that support and camaraderie, your resources are limited and it is easy to feel discouraged. Being able to get support and fresh ideas through the UCLA alumni network is a valuable asset that will remain with me for the entire span of my career.

What has been your greatest career challenge and how did you overcome it?

I have had many great challenges, I’ll tell you that, but I think a lot of teachers can relate to my response. My first year was a total disaster. I had this idea that I could just walk into a classroom and the students would automatically give me the attention and respect as a teacher. However, I never saw so many disrespectful students who were out of control, so clearly, I had the wrong perspective going into my first year. I thought teaching was all I had to do. The Teaching Education Program (TEP) at UCLA is designed to place teachers in underserved communities so I was assigned to a school in the inner city. There were kids walking out of the classroom while class was in session and kids coming up and saying, “Who do you think you are?” In TEP, we all got full-time teaching positions after the first year. We would meet once or twice a week after school to not only complete the master’s program, but to get together with other first year teachers to share our experiences. It was an opportunity for us to vent and listen to other teachers who we were able to relate to. We would collectively come up with solutions, apply them in classes, and then come back next week to share if those solutions worked or didn’t. It was a tough year but with the support from my fellow TEP teachers, I was able to overcome it. I am still teaching at the same school site and if it wasn’t for them, I may be doing something else right now, that’s how much they helped. I thought about quitting many times in the beginning of my career, but those guys held me to the ground and I was able to get through it.

How were you able to make sure that every student is attentive?

When I walk into any classroom, my first goal is not to teach but rather to build relationships. As a teacher, I have to get to know the students and secondly, whatever it is that I’m trying to deliver, I have to justify why they need to learn it. If the students don’t have that mindset, it’s really hard for me to push them to learn it. If they’re into sports and they’re taking a class on music theory, they’re not going to want to learn about music because they’re into sports. In situations like this, how I would go about it is by asking “Hey, do you like any artists?” I’m sure kids will name some of their favorite musicians and you can go on explaining how they make music. That will spark an interest because the conversation is suddenly about what they’re interested in. You have to figure out a common ground and make them interested to keep them engaged. Then, we can get deeper into explaining the subject matter. Without that, you’re talking alone in front of kids without their attention.

What advice would you give to UCLA students and alumni interested in education?

Many people think teachers are often viewed as someone above the students or someone who dictates the classroom. Well, I want to remind everyone that teaching is a service profession. We’re like waiters or waitresses at a restaurant. Teachers are there to serve students meaning that they have to treat them like customers. Our job as a teacher is to make sure that our customers, the students, are happy and successful. I want to tell whoever is thinking about joining this industry that teaching is a job that requires endless effort and you’ll be tired almost every day but at the same time, it is the most rewarding job that I could think of. I say this because watching your students graduate and going to their dream colleges or pursuing the careers that they have been dreaming of is the best feeling in the world. I highly recommend this career to anyone who is passionate about sharing their knowledge and shaping the future generations. It is the ultimate happiness that I have experienced in my life.

Since you have been a teacher for 13 years now, have you’ve gone on to see students graduate from college, maybe even establish their careers?

When I first started teaching, the emphasis was to get the students to college. I was sad because after 3 or 4 years of working with them, they go on to college and at that point, they’re not in my class anymore so I thought my relationship with them was over. I had this emptiness once they started leaving school after I spent so much effort and time preparing them for college, but thanks to social media and email, I can keep in touch with them. The kids come back to visit me to share where they are in life and what they’re doing. I’m starting to see my kids become lawyers, doctors, engineers, etc. I recently heard from a former student who graduated from Stanford and started working at Google. That was pretty cool. Two months ago, one of my kids joined the UCLA TEP to become a teacher. She told me that when she was writing an essay for her application, she wrote about how I inspired her to become a teacher. That was incredible and not something that I even thought about in the beginning of my career. Seeing the positive impact that I’m making on these kids is an absolute pleasure and what keeps me going.

How do you support and participate in the UCLA community now?

UCLA holds a very special place in my heart and I will continue to support the UCLA community. I attend the TEP interview sessions annually as an interviewee to help them select highly qualified teacher candidates. In addition, UCLA runs a program at another school site called UCLA AP Readiness Program, which brings together thousands of high school students from all over the greater Los Angeles area and teach different AP courses such as calculus, biology, and chemistry on a monthly basis. For the past four years, I’ve been a part of this program and I was able to not only help my students but also students from other schools as well.

What makes you most proud to be a Bruin?

There is something about the people that I meet from UCLA. Wherever I go, attending conferences or traveling to other countries, I see Bruins being successful. I want to tell all the future and current Bruins that wherever you go, there is always going to be a Bruin willing to help you to elevate to the next level. So be proud of where you are and at the same time, if you are in the position to offer support, I hope that we can all step our game up to lead younger Bruins so we could keep our wonderful tradition. Go Bruins!

What’s next?

As a person, I love teaching and learning so I plan on staying in education for a very long time. Making positive impacts on students’ lives and helping them get closer to their dreams is where my passion is. There are other roles in education besides being a teacher. By being a teacher, I am able to interact directly with students but I believe working in a larger setting and shaping policies to be implemented in the classrooms is equally important.  In the near future, I want to try serving in an administrative position like an assistant principal, a principal, or even positions at a district level. I received my second master’s degree in the Principal Leadership Institute (PLI) at UCLA. PLI comes with an administrative credential so I’ve been slowly preparing myself. I mentioned earlier that I’m a Magnet coordinator at Lincoln. Eventually, I want to transition into a full-time administrative position to impact a bigger crowd, not just kids in my class but an entire school or even a district. I want to continue to dream big and to make an impact in what I care for because that’s exactly what I tell my kids to do.

Interviewed by Stephen Mendoza, Business Economics student (exp. ’18)